Are STEM and Liberal Arts at Odds?

By Liana Loewus — March 31, 2015 3 min read
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The country’s recent narrow focus on preparing STEM workers is misguided and won’t make the U.S. successful, argues Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria.

In a much-read piece published March 26, he writes, “Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science—and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.”

As a reporter who covers STEM education, I can say that’s undoubtedly true. I receive press releases daily citing the U.S.’ middling international test scores (in math, 29 countries outperformed the U.S. on the recent PISA, and 22 did so in science) and proclaiming the need for better STEM programs in computer science, robotics, engineering, coding, etc.

Zakaria, author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” says such scores are not good predictors of a country’s innovative prowess. The U.S. has “dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation” despite its Program for International Student Assessment scores. Neither Sweden nor Israel fared particularly well on that test either, yet they top most other countries in research and development. Many of the Asian countries that perform well on PISA are trying to add liberal arts into their curricula.

“America overcomes its disadvantage—a less-technically-trained workforce—with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking, and an optimistic outlook,” he writes. For the jobs of the future, "[y]ou could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.”

A Parallel Push

His argument is compelling, and a good foil to the bombardment of marketing and publicity around STEM education. But the piece fails to mention the parallel push in U.S. K-12 schools for just what he is advocating: critical thinking.

The Common Core State Standards for English/language arts, which more than 40 states are now implementing, are all about teaching students to read more closely and think more deeply. Problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis are explicit goals within the standards. The new tests associated with them have more writing and require students to read more complex texts than most previous state assessments.

There’s also an underlying assumption throughout the piece that STEM and liberal arts skills—reading, writing, thinking, all of which Zakaria calls “uniquely human"—are taught separately.

But the essence of STEM, as many K-12 teachers explain it, is that it’s focused on integrating skills, and solving “real world,” often human-focused problems. The push for moving from STEM to STEAM, adding arts to the acronym and emphasizing design, exemplifies the efforts teachers are making to infuse their science instruction with creativity and innovation. The “maker movement,” a campaign to get students inventing and tinkering by providing raw materials and workspaces, is above all about exercising critical thinking.

As I saw at the White House science fair last week, students around the country are certainly following their passions and keeping the human condition in mind—for instance by making wheelchairs more user friendly and designing earthquake proof houses for Haiti.

Plus, the Next Generation Science Standards, which 13 states and D.C. have adopted so far, and other states are considering, also emphasize inquiry, analysis, and critical thinking. As I wrote recently, some educators are advocating teaching these new standards through “mysteries”—by presenting real-world problems and allowing students to navigate their way through complicated scenarios, coming up with further questions for study along the way.

To be fair, Zakaria may be more concerned with higher education and technical training programs than K-12. But it’s worth considering that along with the salient, industry-led focus on technical skills in the U.S., there’s also a less flashy emphasis on the “uniquely human” liberal arts skills that undergird innovative work.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.